The Murderous Magic of Mitch

Some of my first exposure to cricket’s rich history came from an interesting source – a video presented by Dickie Bird called Greatest Cricketing Moments And Silliest Points! Dickie wandered around a deserted Headingley introducing clips of classic cricket such as Laker’s 19-90 and Bradman’s final test innings. Amongst the black and white footage was a section in vivid primary colours, the sunshine glare striking even on the old recording. It was from the 1974-5 Ashes, and was essentially a montage of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson hitting English batsmen with bouncers. It has remained my main impression of cricket Down Under despite England’s contemporary victories and defeats. Until this test match that is, where Mitchell Johnson has utterly terrorised England, reviving and replenishing memories of great fast bowling.

Before Adelaide, his potential was known. His spell at Perth in 2010 was brutal and skilful, but overshadowed by his series as a whole. But I cannot recall an opposition fast bowler bullying England in the way Johnson has in these two tests. McGrath and Steyn have outclassed them, Murali and Ajmal have bamboozled them, but no one has flattened them in such a disorientating way since Waqar and Wasim, or Ambrose and Marshall. England’s subsidence at Trinidad in 1994 – 46 all out – was also on my Dickie Bird video. England’s post-lunch third day performance feels like that.

Lillee and Thomson’s blood-thirsty bowling in the 1974-5 series scarred England. A new form of cricket was being played, and Australia became the Nasty Team. The West Indies’ lethal quicks were admired. The Australians were seen as evil. The English view, tinged with post-colonial denial and snobbery, has persisted. Warne and McGrath fitted the stereotype, even bowling leg spin and medium-fast respectively. The Johnson-Harris-Siddle triumvirate is what England fans expect, but also fear. It’s not worth the pain just for the sake of a cliché.

Mitch, with Lillee’s ‘tache and Thomson’s sling, has revitalised a moribund Australian team. His first innings dismissal of Cook showed the value of raw pace. Hit the top of off stump at 94 mph and few can stop you. His dismissal of Jimmy Anderson reminded me of Curtly Ambrose bowling Graham Thorpe in Trinidad – the flying stump, the thousand-yard stare, the grim inevitability. I suspect future Ashes DVDs will feature the dismissal as an image of Australian resurgence. Christian Ryan wrote that Jeff Thomson “bowled faster probably than anyone in the universe ever has, and faster, perhaps, than the universe wanted him to bowl”. Mitchell Johnson, mocked and belittled, has channelled his predecessor’s cosmonaut spirit.

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